The Path Followed

I like to go fast. I sold my motorcycle a few years ago. Was that wise? I’m still not sure.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is just around the corner. For years I was raising small children upstairs and growing a small business downstairs. Lunch was like this—eat, take the motorcycle to Mt. Mitchell, walk around, come home. It was good. There may be another motorcycle in my future.

Sleep habits are unpredictable. I realized this when I was an intern at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY. My boss, Ted Selker, was a creative genius. He challenged me. I like challenges. Remember DOS? And text-based spreadsheets? With Ted’s prompting I wrote the world’s first mouse driver that supported two mice at the same time. It was hard. That’s when I started waking up at 2 AM, working a few hours, and going back to sleep at 4 AM. My mind just won’t let go of a challenge. So many of the best ideas come during sleep-thinking. That’s harder with kids. An afternoon nap is my respite.

My wife needs more sleep than me. We go to bed at the same time. We get up at the same time. She has no idea I am up changing the world in the middle. I think that’s funny.

After college I moved to Silicon Valley to work at IBM’s Almaden Research Center. Ted had conceived of the TrackPoint. The early prototypes were made by yours truly. It’s exhilarating to be just out of school, broke, and be handed a $5000 laptop and asked to drill a hole through the keyboard in the lab’s small machine shop. Thankfully some were ugly but none destroyed. Strain gauges were attached under a microscope. Tiny barely visible leads soldered to the PS/2 port. The laptops reassembled. And they worked!

Sort of.  Joysticks and mice are kinetic. TrackPoints are isometric. Enter my second numerical processing software challenge—how to make static pressure translate to motion. Integrals, physics, derivatives, sampling rates, configuration parameters, acceleration. It all came together to help make the TrackPoint what it is today. My first challenge? My graduate thesis was on computational fluid dynamics—but I know your eyes will glaze over if we discuss that.

The thrill of conquering the challenge enthralled me. I decided to move into the Silicon Valley startup scene—which was a really hard thing to do since Almaden Research Center had liquid nitrogen taps in every snack room—a perk likely never to be seen again in my remaining career. First was Vadem—a wildly innovative company creating windows tablet PDAs nearly a decade before the iPad was introduced. Next was PowerTV—making pioneering software so that digital cable TV was understandable to people who just wanted to watch TV. That’s when I moved from being an engineer / developer to an architect / manager. By the time I left PowerTV two departments reported to me as well as two internationally outsourced development teams. It was great, except that TV bores me. (side note: PowerTV was acquired by Scientific Atlanta—which was then bought by Cisco. At some point it was estimated that our software was going to be on 500 million set top boxes).

My dad started Rapor around this time. It was a completely innovative way to handle high-throughput security entrances (think TSA screening at O’Hare). New ideas engage me so I wrote the software to make it work—which included implementing a neural network on an embedded processor—which was quite a feat in the late 90s! He was a great engineer; not so much on the entrepreneur side. Alas, you’ve probably never seen one.

A friend was Christian. He shared the gospel with me. It made me mad, but I was compelled. I’m a devout follower. I can defend Christianity. Christians, however, are a group of people who largely know how messed up they are inside and how much less humanity is than it should be. They do silly things; I get that. Most soup kitchens and shelters are started by heartbroken Christians who understand the brokenness we all share. Why am I telling you this? After my stock options paid out I decided to teach math (trigonometry and statistics of all things!) at a Christian high school. Two years full time, one year part time. It’s the only job I’ve ever really missed after leaving. I learned a lot about myself. I realized that the more disenfranchised the kids were the more I liked them. Their math abilities were irrelevant.

Blue Ridge Solutions was my baby. A high-tech company (well, high-tech by the standards of the mountains of Western North Carolina) in a town with an incredibly rich arts scene. My first fully-formed small business (I’d had many small revenue generating ideas and lots of freelance gigs—but never before a business) was perfect for raising a young family, pursuing new ideas and making something bigger than myself. It grew. What started as simple web development led to supply chain analysis, commodity forecasting, and global scheduling systems. Sadly, the really interesting parts are all private. I can’t show you.

Crickets for breakfast? Yes, and before John Chambers agreed. My good friend Sean McDonald founded Bitwater Farms. I built a Particle-based “bitbox” to control temperature, humidity, water supply and ventilation for remotely monitored cricket habitats. It was cool. Crickets out of water—here’s your text message. Was it accurate? Well, yes it was. We could detect when the door was opened to the facility by the drop in humidity—though I doubt that will ever be a preferred security system. We were going to change the world. The circumstances that piled up against this venture are bizarre. I should write a book.

Back to Blue Ridge Solutions, the market was changing, the business model was stretched, and thanks to the ScaleUp program from the SBA and Mountain BizWorks, I learned the difference between working in my business and working on my business. By the time Blue Ridge Solutions was sold in 2017 it was a well-oiled machine. I haven’t fully decided if it was good for my ego or bad for my ego, but I had built something that could run without me. That’s definitely good for business.

Daniel Kellem reading on the couch

Making a small attempt to look natural while my wife grabs a quick photo

Now I’m interested in Big Data, Business Insights based on data, and the application of Artificial Intelligence. I’m a life-long passionate learner. Digging in is challenging and rewarding. I have some ideas that I’m going to apply to cryptocurrency. Are they good ones? I’m building the platform to find out. In either case cryptocurrency and blockchain have wide-reaching political and social implications. AI is here to stay.

And helping my kids survive to adulthood. That seems harder than it used to be. Maybe my perspective has changed.

Check out my fun(ish) side at Facebook. Check out my serious side at LinkedIn

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